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The Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl leader gave up 48 seconds and time bonuses to direct rival Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) after the Slovenian attacked with about 4km to go.
Evenepoel bent but did not crack, and he saw his lead over Roglič shrink from 2:41 to 1:49.
“It wasn’t my best day for sure, I didn’t have the best legs,” Evenepoel said. “I couldn’t accelerate when Roglič went.”
Everyone in the peloton was wondering if Evenepoel was going to be able to have the legs to hold on for a full three weeks.
He showed a bit of a wobble Saturday just as the Vuelta hit a full two weeks of racing.
“Today was one of the hardest days we had in this Vuelta so far, because it was a fast and hard start, and it took 80km for the break to go,” Evenepoel said. “In the end, I lacked some freshness to follow the best guys. We could control the damage very well, so nothing too big to worry about. Off to tomorrow.”
The 22-year-old Belgian shook off a crash Thursday, and returned to racing without gloves in Saturday’s scorcher across southern Spain, but admitted the aftermath of the spill was impacting him when the attacks started flying on the steepest part of La Pandera.
“I have some sore muscles, but it should be gone by tomorrow or after the rest day,” Evenepoel said. “For sure it’s the second day after the crash and that’s often the day you don’t feel really good. I’m not gonna use that as an excuse.”
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Jumbo-Visma was setting up the attack, first with Robert Gesink and then Chris Harper taking big pulls at the front.
Roglič jumped and opened up a 10-second gap on Evenepoel, who didn’t immediately cover the wheel. Smelling blood, Enric Mas and Miguel Ángel López also dropped Evenepoel.
No gloves, no stress: Remco Evenepoel confident ahead of big Vuelta a España weekend:https://t.co/pW17eeEGyh
— VeloNews (@velonews) September 3, 2022
Evenepoel was isolated and others started to swarm him, but in his first major test since snatching the red jersey last week, Evenepoel stood tall.
“I could see the other guys riding in front of me, and when I heard that Mas was dropped from Roglič, I just kept pushing to the final,” Evenepoel said. “On big climbs like this, it’s man against man. Today, we lost a small battle, but we didn’t lose the big battle, so nothing big.”
The young Belgian didn’t panic, and fought to limit his losses.
“I think I already took more time on other finishes like Les Praeres,” Evenepoel said. “I’m still 1:50 ahead in GC, so nothing to really panic about. I’ll try to recover as much as possible and survive tomorrow.”
Evenepoel said the most important thing was not to go into the red while chasing to keep Roglič and the others on the leash.
“I am not worried, because I also gained a lot of time on the others before in this Vuelta. Today was my turn to lose some time. For three weeks, you can have a bad day, and today it was my turn,” Evenepoel said. “That’s the life of a grand tour.”
With Sierra Nevada and its monster climb looming on the horizon, Evenepoel tried to put a positive spin on Saturday’s losses.
“I just didn’t have my best legs today. I hope this was my bad day for these three weeks,” he said. “Today the amount of time I lost I already made the others lose. That’s the normal story, you give some time, you lose some time. That’s why it’s three weeks, and not one week. I am not too worried, and I think I can plan the effort a bit more tomorrow because I know the climb very well.
“It’s completely different finish tomorrow. It’s another day. We still have a big lead, so it’s still all about defending.”
Van Wilder: ‘No need to panic. He didn’t lose 15 minutes’
Evenepoel’s teammates are rallying around their GC captain, and Ilan Van Wilder took the last pulls at the front right before Roglič accelerated clear.
“We don’t have to panic. I think Roglič also lost time during this Vuelta, so it can happen one day to have less legs,” Van Wilder said. “It’s no big deal. Remco did his own pace, and he lost a bit of time. It’s nothing to worry about.”
Remco Evenepoel was dropped today but he didn’t crack. He didn’t panic, didn’t explode. Hats off for that! A 50 second loss is not much if this was only a bad day. But I think his form entered a downward slope and tomorrow, he will lose the Red Jersey. #LaVuelta22
— Mihai Simion (@faustocoppi60) September 3, 2022
Van Wilder, 22, is emerging as one of Evenepoel’s most reliable helpers in the mountains. With Pieter Serry out with COVID-19 and Julian Alaphilippe crashing out, there’s more pressure on the rest of the team.
The young Belgian said Evenepoel didn’t panic in the tense moment.
“Remco said he felt good, and I think Roglič had super legs today on the climb,” he said. “I was doing a solid pace, and I saw he attacked. Normally Remco could be on the wheel, and he had to wait. That was a sign he was a bit less this time, but he was still good.
“He didn’t lose 15 minutes, just a few seconds is not bad.”